‘They really couldn’t believe there was a time before tower blocks’

STORYTELLER Sharon Court.  Picture: Allan Hutchings (122345-965)
STORYTELLER Sharon Court. Picture: Allan Hutchings (122345-965)

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Sharon Court tells the story of the children who stare incredulously at her when she tells them of the time before tower blocks.

‘No way, miss. No way. They must always have been here,’ they chorus.

STORYTELLER Sharon Court with pupils from Somers Park Primary School, (left) John Hawkyard (11) and Piper Tilley (10) in Omega Street, Somers Town. Picture: Allan Hutchings (122345-948)

STORYTELLER Sharon Court with pupils from Somers Park Primary School, (left) John Hawkyard (11) and Piper Tilley (10) in Omega Street, Somers Town. Picture: Allan Hutchings (122345-948)

Then she tells them of the time, easily within living memory, of the 100 independent shops which formed the area’s own High Street.

In the past three years Sharon has devoted a huge chunk of her life, when she and husband Adam are not bringing up their own two children, attempting to give the people of one of Portsmouth’s poorest districts a sense of their own history.

In turn she fervently hopes that sense of place might spark a new sense of pride in the area. It’s a tough ask.

Somers Town, two words which conjure up, at best, shrugs of indifference; at worst, looks of downright horror on people’s faces.

It’s a large swathe of inner city Portsmouth dominated by those 1960s tower blocks – an area sliced in two by a dual carriageway which is the result of planners’ Utopian dream of rebuilding the city after the ravages of the Second World War and ‘slum’ clearance programmes.

Sharon, 38, was born in Royal Tunbridge Wells but came to Portsmouth a decade ago and was almost immediately struck by Somers Town. It has come to dominate her life.

In the next couple of months she will wind up a project called Somers Town Stories, which she has led.

What she and her team have tried to do is get the people of the area, of all ages, to better understand the connections between them, the place and their environment and the interactions taking place among them.

The Heritage Lottery Fund came up trumps with a £24,000 grant for the project in which Sharon has pieced together oral histories from people who have lived there for decades, given lessons at various schools to inspire youngsters about where they live and put together an archive which will be deposited in the City Museum.

She says: ‘It’s so easy to look at the statistics and the demographics of an area and say ‘‘ah, you have a problem and I’m going to come and fix it for you’’. That’s all rather patronising.’

She was working for the Arts Council-funded Creative Partnerships which sat within the University of Portsmouth, which enabled her to get into Somers Town Schools to work with children.

She formed a close bond with Somers Park Primary, off Somers Road, working with the children to gradually build stories about the area from the research she had done.

‘It was called Somers Town Detectives and was set in 1950 and based on children who might have lived there at the time.

‘I did the storytelling asking the children what they thought would happen next and then incorporated their ideas.’

Which is where the disbelief crept in among her rapt young listeners.

‘They really couldn’t believe there was a time before tower blocks and they certainly couldn’t get their heads around the fact that there were once so many independent shops on Somers Road.

‘There used to be 100 there – 37 of those were pubs or breweries, plus a corset factory, brush factory, lemonade factory. Then there was a tailor, confectioner, grocer, vet, butcher, bootmaker and fishmonger.

‘One lady I interviewed recalled the time in the war when the butcher sold whalemeat because he couldn’t get beef.’

She adds: ‘All this challenges people’s perceptions about how Somers Town came to be as it is today.

‘If we know where we’ve come from it helps us understand where we are now.’

For the purposes of her project Sharon defines Somers Town as the area south of the railway line between Fratton and the town station, east of the Terraces, north of King’s Road and Elm Grove and west of Victoria Road North.

It has been sliced in two by Winston Churchill Avenue, one reason Sharon believes the people there lost their sense of community.

‘I have a map from 1870 which shows very dense, very small rows of two-up, two-down, no-bathroom houses across the entire area.

‘The next map in 1898 shows that all of the area between Somers Road and what became Victoria Road North and South is full of bigger houses with bathrooms.

‘So after the Second World War, when Portsmouth Corporation decided to do slum clearance, they viewed all the houses to the west of Somers Road which had no bathrooms as slums, cleared everything and up went the tower blocks.’

Those maps also leave youngsters astounded. ‘They can’t believe there was a time when Winston Churchill Avenue didn’t exist. The maps show them a Portsmouth they’ve never seen,’ adds Sharon.

‘All of this – the so-called slum clearance and the building of Winston Churchill Avenue and the tower blocks – challenges people’s perceptions about how Somers Town came to be as it is today.’

Sharon believes that when the tower blocks went up, as the city was finally redeveloped in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they weren’t a problem.

‘When people first moved in they told me they loved living there. They said they were like streets in the sky.’

But gradually those nearby factories and shops, which gave so much employment, closed and moved out of the city.

‘Somers Town became largely filled with a much more transient population. Suddenly people weren’t there long enough to form meaningful relationships or friendships.

‘Part of the reason Somers Town hasn’t worked is because the new housing was used as an experiment in social housing. There is a high proportion of families with problems and challenging issues. Put them all in one place and it doesn’t work.’

Sharon says the high turnover of people is exacerbated by the number of asylum seekers and refugees placed in the area.

‘They are very quickly moved on to other parts of the city or the country. There’s no time for them to feel part of the community.

‘However, in places there is still a sense of great community spirit.

‘It’s not all doom and gloom and when you delve into the past of Somers Town you get a good understanding of why it’s like it is today.’